"Man of the People" (Season 6, Episode 3)
Or The One Where Troi Gets Screwed By An Ambassador. No, The Other One.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Troi. From enough distance, there's nothing inherently wrong with any fictional character, at least on a conceptual level. An empathic counselor who works to help her fellow crewmembers deal with the stresses and tensions of living on the Enterprise makes a decent amount of sense. One of the ways TNG distinguishes itself from its predecessor is by admitting there are these touchy-feely sensations called "emotions," and that often times, grimacing and scenery chewing isn't the best way to process those emotions. Again, it's consequences, and Troi's presence is a sign of the show's commitment to thinking things through. It's just, that commitment seems to stop when the writers run into gender roles. There've been episodes throughout the series which have tried dealing with traditional concepts of male/female relations, with varying degrees of success, but Troi always seems to bring out the worst in everyone. By this point in the show, nearly the entire ensemble has been fleshed out and developed to more than stock roles, but Troi remains "The Girl," occasionally effective, all too often forced to behave like a cast-off from a '70s sitcom.
Really, "Man of the People" isn't the worst treatment she's had on the series. Apart from a bizarre line about "I'm going to reward myself with two ice cream sundaes," (I can't even explain exactly why this sounds so wrong, but it made me shudder) Troi comes across as normal enough. At least she does when she's not acting under the influence of some evil bastard's mind assault. One of the problems with "Man" is that so much of the episode is given over to Troi's degradation at the hands of Alkar, the horrible, no good, very bad ambassador who uses her as an external drive to store his bad vibes. Sure, it's unsettling while it's happening, and it's unsettling in a way that TNG very rarely is. But then you get to the last ten minutes, which on the one hand provides the satisfaction of Picard once again telling some jerkwad off, but on the other hand, makes Troi's pawn-status even more obvious. She gets to be the victim (through no fault of her own, beyond simple compassion), and then somebody else comes in and rescues her; despite how much she's on screen, she's barely more than window-dressing.
Hell, it's not even like she really fell for the ambassador before he worked his horrible magic on her. I was prepared for that, as Troi has a history of falling for ambassadors, especially calm ones who do a lot of creepy direct eye contact, but apart from some minor attention and conversation, there's not a ton of chemistry there. Ves Alkar arrives aboard the Enterprise, on his way to negotiate a peace at Rekag-Seronia. He brings his mother (SPOILER: Not really his mother), Sev Maylor, with him, and while Alkar is friendly, courteous, and respectful, his mother is terrifying. She verbally berates Troi for a presumed romantic interest in her son, with a viciousness not often seen on TNG—she's one note, shrewish, a caricature of a hateful mother-in-law. Troi is understandably taken aback, but this doesn't stop her from maintaining friendly relations with Alkar, and when Maylor dies unexpectedly, it's reasonable that Alkar would turn to Troi for support. And, hey, Troi is an empath, and Alkar's funeral rituals require an empath to work, so just hold this stone here and close your eyes—KEEP THEM CLOSED, DAMMIT—and yeeeeah. Yeah, that will do nicely.
I do have a few positive things to say about "Man." While it's obvious early on that Troi is under Alkar's influence, it's not clear for a long time just what that influence is, and the episode spends a lot of time demonstrating Troi's altered behavior without providing any explanation or context. First she tries to put the moves on Alkar, and he rejects her. Then she becomes increasingly sexually aggressive, apparently seducing a young male ensign and dressing all slutty and stuff. Which is hilarious, and not in the intentional way. I say she "apparently" seduces a young stud, because as far as we see, all she does is give him the eye in the turbolift, and then he hangs out in her quarters while she changes into something more comfortable. I'm assuming there was some sexy time, but apart from Troi's new outfit, there's no real indication. The whole thing is presumably intended to be disturbing, as we've never seen Troi behave this way before. But it's mostly just funny.
It's also more entertaining than much of Troi's usual, "Captain, I sense something" routines. It should be horrifying and sad as Deanna slowly but surely morphs into the hateful harridan who accompanied Alkar at the start of the ep, but there's something almost cathartic in seeing her blow up the way she does, lashing out at any attractive female who comes near Alkar and even going so far as to scratch Riker across the face and neck in the throes of passion. Well, maybe "cathartic" isn't quite the right word, but so much of TNG is soft voices, courtesy, and soothing gestures. Most everyone else in the cast has had a chance to get angry at some point during the run, but while I'm sure Troi has had a moment or two of rage (her frustration with her mother doesn't count), Sirtis is so often relegated to reactive, even passive behavior that it's fun to watch her blow up. Which makes "Man" less of a chore to get through, at least. And hey, maybe that's part of the appeal of stories like this. We can make noises over the selfishness and tragedy of Henry Jekyll, but we're really in it to see what Hyde's been getting up to lately.
This does present a problem, though, when Troi is entirely side-lined for the episode's climax. At first, Troi's change in attitude creates waves, but no suspicions, not even when she shows up in Ten-Forward in a Bond Girl dress, and nearly attacks Alkar's dinner companion. (Riker escorts her back to her room, and that's when she roughs him up. I do like how the series has made an effort at establishing the on-going friendship between these two; it's nowhere near as "will they or won't they," not least because they already did, but their interactions do a nice job of character building without making a big deal about it.) But Troi's sudden, rapid aging is harder to dismiss as a bad day, and eventually, Beverly realizes something's not quite on the up and up with ole Alkar. When Troi finally collapses, looking all of a billion years old, Alkar is in the middle of negotiations, and Picard has to beam down to confront him about what's going on. Alkar is surprisingly honest about what he's done—at least, as honest as a man who uses a pretend funeral ceremony to effectively murder pretty women.
It's an interesting scene. I always enjoy seeing Picard getting righteously pissed off, and as the true scope of Alkar's arrogance and cruelty become clear, Picard reacts as expected. And, like Troi's vamped up sex queen act, it's undeniably entertaining to see a character whose so thoroughly, unquestionably evil. Alkar creates forced psychic links with others and then dumps all his negative and unpleasant emotions into them, supposedly freeing him to stay calm and be more effective at his job. It's basically like Portrait of Dorian Gray, only instead of a painting, living beings have to suffer Alkar's sins by proxy. It's monstrous. Oh sure, Alkar makes the argument that he's helped millions through his actions, and his successes as an ambassador should more than outweigh the deaths he's caused. But that's paper thin. There are plenty of other ambassadors capable of doing much the same work he does, and nothing we see here makes him seem any more gifted at his work. Plus, there's the fact that he doesn't ask any of his victims permission before taking a psychic dump in their brains. And, even more telling, the fact that all of his "partners" are beautiful women. Oh sure, we never see Maylor in mint condition, but come on. This isn't a man sacrificing himself and others in the name of progress. This is someone who wants to use people without any of the guilt that comes with it.
Of course, the process here is never entirely clear—he tells Picard he projects his "negative" emotions into the women, but doesn't mean that Troi is supposed to be behaving as his Jekyll? I guess his "good" side justifies its actions in the same way that Alkar tries to justify himself to Picard, and than just channels any of his guilt into the link. Which, again, is super nasty, and it's fun to watch Beverly and Picard try and come up with ways to outsmart Alkar, while Troi lies dying and the ambassador sets his sights on his next victim.
But there's something a little tired about all of this, although I didn't realize it till after that confrontation scene. Partly it's the fact that Troi is once again getting emotionally entangled with an ambassador who has something to hide. This is, what, the third time this has happened? The fourth? And this isn't the first time she's had someone screw with her mind before, either. There's the way we never understand the context of Alkar's behavior: is this a culturally accepted action? His assistant doesn't realize what she's getting into when he starts putting the moves on her, but surely the way he powers through consorts—who have a strange habit of becoming drastically old and shrewish before dropping dead—would've been noticed by someone, especially considering that Alkar is in such a position of power and influence. Maybe the high-level government officials realize what's going on, but take steps to cover it up, since Alkar's efforts bring them such acclaim and respect. Or maybe not. The issue is less which back-story "Man" went with, and more that it didn't bother with much back-story at all. And then, just when the moral conflict is becoming a little interesting, Alkar conveniently dies. It's a suitably unpleasant death, and I sure didn't mind seeing the bastard go, but it does tie everything up in a too-neat package.
Really, though, I keep coming back to poor Troi. She deserves better than this, and while there are some laughs in seeing Sirtis get sarcastic mid-therapy session to a whiny crewmember, the laughs don't make up for the ill-usage. Having an episode where a character is reduced to a passive sufferer isn't problematic in and of itself; everybody needs help from their friends from time to time. But for someone who so rarely is allowed any autonomy to be once again reduced to a prop makes for tedious storytelling. There's no real psychological depth to Alkar's influence, and we don't learn anything new about Troi. Dramatically, this is all one note, and outside from a few amusing scenes, the chance to see Picard get his mad on, and a decently suspenseful climax, it doesn't hold together well at all.
- Oh, and it was super classy to have Troi feel herself up post-brain-link-up. What the hell was that supposed to represent? Alkar's masturbatory fantasies? There's so much dark, unpleasant sexual subtext running through all this, and it doesn't fit the show well at all. It doesn't go anywhere, either, beyond the not-so-subtle implication that Alkar is one creepy, creepy dude.
- I did like that Beverly "killed" Troi in order to break the link. Makes me wonder what they would've done if that hadn't been an option, though.
"Relics" (Season 6, Episode 4)
Or The One Where Scotty Beams Himself Up
One of the smartest choices the creative team of TNG made when starting a new Trek series was pushing the show nearly a century after the events of TOS. After all, by the late eighties, the original Enterprise crew had become iconic to TV and film fans alike, and any series that tried to follow in their footsteps was going to have its work cut out for it. By starting long after Kirk, Sulu, Chekov and the others should've been dead, TNG allowed itself the space to find its own voice, without having to fill every episode with fan service and homage. Sure, there've been occasional nods to TOS. DeForest Kelley popped up in the premiere wearing a crapload of old age make-up. Sarek did a couple of guest spots before he died. And of course Spock had his two-parter last season. But while it took a season or two for TNG to come into its own, it was able to do so without putting William Shatner on the bridge, or turning Uhura in a computer simulation. The distance allowed us to accept that this was, for all intents and purposes, a new show, and not one that had to try and recapture whatever rough-hewn magic TOS achieved in its brief run.
Plus, the rarity of those callbacks makes it all the more fun when the writers (in this case, your friend and mine Ron Moore) decide to work one in. In "Relics," the Enterprise gets a distress call from the Jenolan, a Federation ship that went missing over seventy years ago. The follow the signal and find the ship has crash-landed on an honest to god Dyson Sphere, a previously theoretical model created in 1959 by Freeman Dyson that postulated a shell built around a star could allow people living on the inside of the shell access to almost limitless amounts of energy. No one's ever seen one built before, so Picard and the bridge crew are understandably impressed. And that's not the only wonder. Geordi, Riker, and Worf beam over to the Jenolan, and Geordi discovers that there's still a pattern left in the transporter buffer—a pattern that has someone managed to avoid significant degradation in the decades since the ship crashed. Geordi activates the energizer, and then, with a sound and visual affect familiar to anyone whose watched the original Trek series, Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan), former Chief Engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, fades into view.
If you followed my TOS reviews, I'm not a big fan of Scotty from his portrayal on that show; I found the character often problematic, and kind of unpleasant, for various reasons that aren't worth getting into here. He grew on me over time, and I enjoyed his presence in all the Trek movies, but I was surprised at just how much I liked him here, in a way I'm not sure I would've liked Sulu or Uhura if Moore had chosen one of them to appear. Nothing against Sulu or Uhura, or Chekov, or anyone else—Scotty just makes the most sense because his job on the original series is one that leads to the most potentially effective dramatic narrative when he finds himself in the "present" of TNG. As Chief Engineer, Scotty was a man made of his time, and his expertise and knack for problem solving saved his ship dozens of times over. But even as the movies went on, and the technology passed him by, there was a sense that he wouldn't be able to remain relevant much longer.
The movies played this gradual process of antiquization for laughs or "Right on!" moments, as Scotty was always able to find some loophole or trick to demonstrate his old-school cleverness could top any new tech that got in his way. But in "Relics," well, just look at the title. This is TNG, and, as such, there wasn't much chance that Doohan's guest spot was going to end with him feeling humiliated and alone. By the conclusion of the ep, Scotty has once again shown his usefulness, and he leaves the new Enterprise with a general sense of optimism and pride. And yet, even then—he leaves. Even after helping Geordi to save the day, there's no suggestion that Scotty stick around and get retrained. (Well, I think someone—Picard?—suggests he go back to school, but Scotty rejects the suggestion, and rightly so.) This isn't an episode about death, exactly, but it is one about how good times pass us inevitably by, and how there will come a time in all our lives, if we're lucky enough to live that long, when we'll spend too much of our days reminiscing over the memory of when we really mattered.
"Relics" is a strong hour, then, both for the series and for the franchise, and it deals better with an old crew-member passing the torch to Picard than Generations did. (Or does, since when "Relics" aired, Generations was a few years down the road yet. Of course, that leads to a plot-hole when Scotty talks about Kirk in "Relics" as though he thinks Kirk is still alive, but I think we'd all be happy to pretend that Generations never existed.) I can see fans accusing the episode of being occasionally mawkish, or overly comic, or not focusing enough on the admittedly fascinating concept of the Dyson Sphere. The mawkish worked for me, because Doohan carries the character well, and the sentimentality was earned; and I actually laughed at most of the jokes, which is a rarity for this show. As for the Sphere, well, you got me there. It's a bit under-used, and we never get any sense of who built it or why. But, quite honestly, I don't care. TNG doesn't do a lot of hard sci-fi, and while there may be some plot that was squandered here, the episode as is works well enough that I find it hard to complain over possible missed opportunities.
So, Scotty is saved, and he beams back over to the Enterprise, where his attempts to involve himself with Engineering go about as badly as you'd expect. Wonder of wonders, you even see Geordi getting angry here, as Scotty's constant interruptions and misguided offers of assistance threaten to put him behind schedule. What makes this work is the way "Relics" manages to put our symapthies with a guest character, even while we still understand Geordi's point. Obviously it's hard to be told you're obsolete, and Geordi's initial condescension (it's subtle, but it's there, and it's a great character moment for La Forge), a sort of polite "Okay Grandpa, I'll pretend like you matter," makes it easy to be on Scotty's side, whether or not you have an emotional attachment to TOS. But the fact is, while he could probably stand a little more perspective, Geordi is essentially right. The mistakes Scotty makes in Engineering are all clear indications that he's no longer qualified or equipped to do the work he once did, no matter how much he might protest otherwise. Eventually, he's given a chance to prove himself back on the Jenolen, but that doesn't change the basic truth here: time passes, and even if you stay alive, you will get left behind eventually.
Scotty spends some time in Ten-Forward, trying to drink his way through his troubles; he's horrified to discover that the scotch served on the ship is non-intoxicating, but luckily Data is around to dip into Guinan's private stash. ("It is green," is a great laugh-line, and a fine call-back to TOS episode "By Any Other Name.") This leads to what may be the best scene of the episode, as Scotty wanders half-drunk to a holodeck and uses the computer to re-create the bridge of the original Enterprise. ("NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C, or D.") The effects here are a little rocky, as the show didn't have the budget to recreate the original set, and mostly just green-screened Scotty in over old footage. But it's still effective and nostalgic and sweet, especially when Picard pops by for a chat about old ships and lost loves. Yes, on the one hand, there's a bit of that fan service I mentioned above here, as Picard and Scotty's conversation doesn't advance the plot, but dammit, that doesn't make it one whit less entertaining.
Of course, we can't just hang around and shoot the breeze the entire ep, so soon enough, Picard sends Geordi and Scotty back to the Jenolen to try and access the ships data logs. This is supposedly to give Scotty something to do so he can feel useful again, but it's story purpose is to get Geordi and Scotty off the Enterprise so that when Picard and the others manage to get themselves sucked into the Dyson Sphere, our twin engineers can come to the rescue. (Scotty and Geordi get the Jenolen running again, and use it to block open the entrance to the Sphere long enough for the Enterprise to escape.) It's a traditional ending, to a largely traditional episode, but that doesn't make it any less fun to watch. Doohan and Burton have a good chemistry together, and while their mutual antagonism never rises to the level of outright contempt, it's nice to see both men learning to respect and appreciate the other. After a generally unpleasant episode like "Man of the People" (which, even if it had been successful, would've been pretty creepy and unsettling), it's a relief to spend some time on an honest adventure with plenty of good vibes.
And Doohan is just a lot of fun throughout. The reveal that he used to exaggerate the amount of time projects would take in order to seem like a miracle worker is terrific, as are the handful of references to TOS episodes. But what makes this really work is that even if you didn't have any history at all with Star Trek, it would still be easy to appreciate what happens here. Because even if the details are specific to the franchise, the core idea—accepting that the world moves on, realizing you still have something to offer even if it's not as important as it used to be—are universal. I wonder if Moore ever considered killing Scotty off before the end of the hour. It wouldn't have been all that difficult, really, and I suppose there would've been a certain neatness to it. But I'm glad that, instead, Scotty ends up with a shuttlecraft, off to explore a galaxy slightly older than when he last saw it. It's a bit on the corny side, but like everything else in "Relics," it works better than it should have.
- It's a slightly sentimental A. I could take off points for the overly direct conversation between Geordi and Scotty on the Jenolen, but I won't.
- "When I was here, I could tell you the speed we were travelling by the feel of the deckplates." This is both a good line and an terrifying concept.
Next week: We fall into some "Schisms," and meet the "True Q."